Bernard Gardiner is one of the last remaining WWII Hawker Typhoon pilots and a strong supporter of the project to rebuild RB396. He flew the Hurricane and Typhoon during the war, but one aircraft eluded him – the Spitfire. Bernard originally joined the Royal Air Force on the 3rd October 1940, while the Battle of Britain raged overhead. Now, almost exactly 80 years later the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group (HTPG) arranged something incredibly special for him. *
As a thank you for his staunch support of the fundraising efforts by the HTPG to rebuild the sole surviving combat veteran Hawker Typhoon, to allow him to fly that one aircraft that eluded him during WWII and, more than anything, as a figurehead of all his brothers and sisters in arms, to thank him and them for their service during the conflict; the HTPG arranged for him to fly the Spitfire, 80 years on from him first signing up.
The 98-year-young Bernard now resides in Jersey and was transported to the historic Duxford airfield on the day by the kind efforts of Chris Winch, touching down at 11am. It was from Duxford, the first station to host the Typhoon where 56 Sqn introduced the type to service, that the Spitfire flight would take place. The flight was provided by the Aerial Collective, an arm of the Aircraft Restoration Company, who, under the leadership of John Romain, are the engineering partners for the rebuild of Hawker Typhoon RB396.
After touching down and stretching his legs, it was time for Bernard to meet the pilot for his special flight. Three time Red Bull Air Race champion and HTPG ambassador, Paul Bonhomme, would be conducting the flight, his first official duty as project ambassador. Bernard could not be in safer hands. After a thorough pre-flight briefing, where Bernard briefed Paul just as much as the other way round, it was time to get kitted up and “scramble!”
Sitting in the Supermarine Spitfire Tr9, an original aircraft built in 1943 as a HF MkIXe that saw service with 73, 326 and 253 Sqns and was modified with a second seat post war, Bernard remarks how all the controls fell naturally to hand, with the similarities between the Hurricane and Typhoon that he remembers fondly, easy to spot. The excitement in Bernard is clear to see, even for someone who went on after the war to have a full commercial flying career. The Spitfire has an incredible effect on people.
“Clear prop!” with a bang and a puff of exhaust smoke the Spitfire’s Merlin engine fires into life. A quick warm up, and with a wave from both Paul and Bernard they are off, taxiing across the hallowed turf of Duxford airfield, that has seen so much history. Taking off and climbing up into the Cambridgeshire sky, the emotion from his family and those assembled on the ground is palpable. As soon as they are airborne, safely climbing away and all checks complete, Paul hands over control to Bernard. Paul said afterwards that “he could tell Bernard was a Typhoon pilot, because as soon as he handed over control, he wanted to be down on the deck, with the trains”.
The stick and rudder moved naturally, as though he last flew yesterday. Enjoying the autumn sky, some maneuvering, even some aerobatics and, of course, that view of the famous elliptical wing. Bernard said afterwards it was “just brilliant, thank you. You’ve made an old fighter pilot very happy”. Time for Paul to take control again and bring the aircraft back to base; a low pass across the airfield, break up into the circuit and the classic Spitfire curved approach to land. Taxiing back in the smile on Bernard’s face was clear to see, even from the other side of the airfield.
80 years since he joined the Royal Air Force and he has finally flown the Spitfire.
Bernard was one of over 1200 pilots to fly the Hawker Typhoon in combat during WWII. A perilous task, with 56% of all who flew the Typhoon making the ultimate sacrifice. He was one of the lucky ones. Add to that the thousands who designed, built, tested, delivered and maintained the type during the conflict, including the many ground crew casualties, the HTPG exists to create a living, breathing, working and flying memorial to preserve the legacy of their sacrifice in the country’s time of need. Hawker Typhoon RB396, once complete, will be that memorial. If the funds can be raised soon enough, it is just possible that Bernard might be able to witness the first flight – although he has already declined to fly it, stating that at 102+ it might not be the best idea!!
HTPG Trustee, and main organiser of the event, Sam Worthington-Leese, whose own grandfather flew the Hurricane and Typhoon, just like Bernard, thanked everyone who had played a part in organising and executing the day. In particular John Romain, Anna, Jack and all the staff at the Aircraft Restoration Company and the Aerial Collective, Paul Bonhomme for looking after Bernard in the air, Hideaway Studios for capturing the day, the news and media outlets who covered the story and everyone on the HTPG who supported the planning, or the day itself. “Without them,” he said, “it could not have happened. Together, we have helped to make that old fighter pilot, very happy.”
Help us. Help us create the memorial that Bernard and those brave men and women deserve. We have already raised in excess of £750,000 of the £5million required. With your help and support, it can become a reality. But we can’t do it alone.
The Supporters’ Club is the bedrock of the project, allowing it to achieve incredible things already. By joining on either a Platinum, Life or Annual subscription you will be directing contributing to the rebuild effort of Hawker Typhoon RB396.
The Platinum Club was established on the 75th anniversary of RB396’s final flight – 1st April 2020. The Club exists to enable the acceleration of the rebuild, with contributions on a larger scale. As a member, contributing on this level, you can have the exclusive reward of your name, or that of a veteran/family member, etched onto the aircraft to be a part of the memorial forevermore. In addition, you will receive a guaranteed and complimentary invite to the official first flight event, an invite to the yearly Platinum Club dinner to socialise and share motivations with fellow supporters and a host of other exclusive benefits.
* The flight was originally scheduled for the 3rd October 2020, but had to be rearranged due to very poor weather.